When the policy is more important than the dramaturgy

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Ten minutes into Act Two of Alex Alpharoah's one man show WET: A DACAmented Journey, I felt torn between two desires.

On one side, there was what I wanted to happen for this piece of theater to live up to the expectations of Act One -- to make this a more dramatic journey.

On the other side, there was the outcome I wanted for this person standing in front of me, Alex Alpharoah.

Those two outcomes were in conflict. Here's why.

As the title suggests, WET: A DACAmented Journey replays Alex Alpharoah's harrowing experience of being an undocumented man, in the DACA program, living in America today. His story, while personal and specific, is far from unique.

Mr. Alpharoah was brought to the US as a baby. He didn't come in with official papers through a Port of Entry but instead on a month long journey from Guatemala in the arms of his 15-year-old mother.

Fast forward through roughly 30 years of living in Los Angeles without any papers and Mr. Alpharoah confronts a terrifying decision: risk leaving his home to return to a country he's never known where he could end up stranded or stay in the US and risk having to return to the shadows to avoid a deportation.

That's the dramatic question at the heart of this solo show told, alternately, through a riveting first person narrative and slightly less riveting spoken word interludes.

Act One is a tense and political saga. We learn the back story, we hear of the hardships and personal shame of living in the shadows, and we confront the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that stands between Mr. Alpharoah and the country he calls home. A series of documents and a specific government procedure is laid out as the only way forward.

As Act One comes to a close the central question gets even sharper: will Alex Alpharoah be able to return to Los Angeles or be stranded in Guatemala?

As dramatically poignant as this crisis is, theatrically it has a built in spoiler. Mr. Alpharoah's show is happening in Los Angeles roughly six months later so I don't think I'm giving away any secrets when I say he made it back.

Which leads us to the challenge of Act Two and the division between what's best theatrically and what's best personally.

Personally, I want our protagonist to make it back to the US as quickly and easily as possible but dramatically that's less exciting and it's not the journey that's set up in Act One.

But here's the challenge with autobiographical one-person shows -- what's best dramaturgically might not be what actually happened. So when Act Two loses some of the "follow the paperwork" drama of Act One you're both relieved but dramatically let down.

What this tension points to is a bigger question of audience and our role in it. Is this a piece trying to convince someone that harsh immigration policies are a misguided mistake? Or is it a chance for folks who already feel that way to bear witness?

As theater more broadly tries to find its political voice, that's the challenge. Should it preach, like "Building the Wall" at the Fountain to a reliably blue choir? Or should it try and convert a more complicated red audience?

Mr. Alpharoah tries to do a bit of both.

While his story might lose some dramatic tension and political punch along the way, my guess is most LA audiences are happy to see him home.

WET: A DACAmented Journey plays at EST/LA in Atwater Village through September 3.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 90 minutes with an intermission.

Photo by Youthana Yuos.